Refugee Groups Taking Federal Government to Court Over Refugee Health Care Cuts

The Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers have launched a court challenge against the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism. The two groups have asked the Federal Court to examine the constitutionality of Minister Jason Kenney’s decision to cut health care for certain refugee claimants. This past summer, Minister Kenney announced that some refugee claimants would no longer receive medication and medical care, including dentistry and vision care. Prior to this announcement on June 30, 2012, the federal government reimbursed claimants for these expenses until their provincial health coverage began. But the government has now removed most supplemental health-care benefits entirely, with some refugee claimants only being reimbursed for care if it is a public health emergency. The policy removes care for claimants from countries the federal government has deemed safe, such as Japan and Hungary. The logic behind this is that fewer of these claimants are likely to have successful claims. The government hopes this measure will save $100 million and deter bogus refugee claimants. But rights groups are arguing this violates the Canadian Charter and the United Nations Refugee Convention. They also believe this approach will end up costing Canada more as medical issues develop and claimants end up in the emergency room.The refugee groups claim that these cuts have created thousands of claimants without any health coverage. They argue that Minister Kenney’s actions violates a number of sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including security of the person, subjection to cruel and unusual treatment and discrimination based on nationality. The groups also argue that the policy will end up costing Canadians more money, as preventable medical issues are untreated until the patient requires emergency care. All refugee claimants can still claim medical expenses if they are considered life threatening or if they are “of public concern.”

Three men in particular have become the public face of the campaign: Ahmad Awatt, Daniel Garcia Rodriguez and Hanif Ayubi. Awatt is a failed refugee claimant from Iraq. He has not been sent back due to a deportation ban on Iraq in place since 2003. Awatt has a genetic disorder that puts him at risk of life-threatening organ damage. The Federal cuts mean he can no longer get monthly tests and liver ultrasounds he needs for his condition. Rodriguez is from Colombia and would have been nearly denied necessary eye surgery if not for a charitable Toronto surgeon. Ayubi is a rejected claimant from Afghanistan, which also has a deportation ban. He has type 1 diabetes, which he has treated with insulin from a community clinic in Ottawa since the cuts were made. Ayubi has a work permit, a job and has been paying taxes, but he is still unable to cover his medical costs. These three will testify at the upcoming court case.

Jason Kenney, Minister of Immigration, Citizenship and Multiculturalism responded quickly to the criticisms and called the measures ‘justified.‘ He first noted that the majority of refugee claimants waiting for their case to be heard, and all government sponsored refugees, still have full access to medical aid. He called the court challenge “totally ridiculous” and the “work of militant leftists.” He went on to state that “we have no legal, moral, political obligation to give taxpayer services to bogus asylum seekers, rejected claimants – people who are effectively illegal migrants.” Finally, Kenney noted that “when the changes came into effect on July the 1st we saw from precisely that date a 90% reduction in the number of asylum claims being filed by citizens of the European Union.”

When these changes first went into effect, Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews urged the federal government to reconsider its decision. This past summer, Matthews wrote a letter to federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney which said “by abdicating your responsibility toward some of the most vulnerable in our society, you have effectively downloaded federal costs onto the provincial health-care system.” Matthews has not commented on the current legal challenge.

This is the second federal legal challenge in as many weeks. Democracy Watch and the University of Victoria’s Environmental Legal Clinic filed a report with the Canadian Information Commissioner which asked her to look into the constitutionality of alleged muzzling of federal scientists.

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